It’s been 50 years since the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when civil rights activists and organizers brought more than 250,000 people to the nation’s capital to call attention to the discrimination and unemployment plaguing African Americans. To mark the anniversary, Washington D.C. hosted a March for Jobs and Justice in which participants walked the same route and heard speeches from today's generation of civil rights activists and leaders.
The tone and organization of this year’s march was decidedly different as America is in the thick of a digital age. These four relevant technological innovations have changed the fact of activism drastically since the Civil Rights Era was gaining speed 50 years ago.
Yes, television did exist 50 years ago, but the scope, power, and business of television production has changed dramatically. It was June 1963 when Malcolm X, minister of the Nation of Islam and the face of black militancy, engaged in full, long-form debates on network television with other mainstream voices. Today’s TV conglomerates have created more channels but less diversity as networks clamor for the same demographic of viewers and produce formulaic entertainment that effectively ignores and marginalizes voices that challenge the establishment.
Squeezing rapid-fire segments between advertisements has resulted in a media culture in which presenting radical ideas is an insurmountable challenge.
These recent biting UNICEF advertisements capture how some organizations feel that social networks have influenced 21st century activism. UNICEF mocks the use of online gestures like "likes" to demonstrate support or approval of its mission and global work. The term "slacktivism," which criticizes those who do little more than hit "like" on a Facebook story, sign an online petition, or share a link on Twitter to show their support for choice social and political movements, encompasses the ill-will towards digital-age activism. Do these online acts bring about change? Even the most optimistic studies show that follow up efforts must happen offline to have real value.
Imagine the population of Montgomery, Ala. simply "liking" the Montgomery Bus Boycott Facebook Page instead of doing the dangerous and inconvenient work of boycotting the public transportation system for over a full year.
If Martin Luther King Jr. had experienced privacy intrusion and intimidation through methods of wiretapping and surveillance, it would seem silly by today’s standards. The prolific list of civil rights activists would have included digital privacy among those rights worth fighting for.
Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, Rosa Parks, and other icons of that time would likely stand aghast at the irony of the first black president presiding over an administration that routinely disregards civil liberties.
The participants in the 2013 March on Washington listened intently to speeches from event leaders at the podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial, just like their predecessors 50 years ago. This time, however, they also occasionally tweeted a profound word or two from those speaking. Well, maybe more than two. The #marchonwashington hashtag was abuzz with updates, quotes, and pictures throughout the event. A day later, Youtube had hundreds of videos posted so that interested parties all over the world could participate in the historic experience with unprecedented speed. The spread of social networks and ubiquity of mobile devices had global significance as well.
Technology is only as powerful as its users. In order to ensure that the next 50 years of tech advancements will to enhance our values, the world needs more independent journalism, a strong defense against encroachments on internet privacy, bottom-up militant activism, and the capacity to adjust to a rapidly evolving landscape.